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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Opera Review: Who's Afraid of Cardillac?

The Officer (Steven Sanders, l.) confronts Cardillac (Sanford Sylvan, r.) in a tense moment.
Photo from the dress rehearsal of Cardillac by Clive Grainger 

© 2011 Clive Grainger/ Opera Boston
On Friday evening, Opera Boston offered the New England premiere of Paul Hindemith's Cardillac, a rarely performed, but influential German opera. Baritone Sanford Sylvan gave a towering performance in the difficult title role.

Based on Mademoiselle de Scudéri, a story by the writer/composer E.T.A. Hoffmann, Cardillac is an early example of mystery fiction: the story of a goldsmith in the Paris of Louis XIV, who murders his customers in order to resume possession of his jewelry. Although a success at the work's 1926 premiere, Hindemith later revised the opera, adding a final act and softening the title character's sharp edges. The rise of the Nazis and the flight of Hindemith to America consigned Cardillac to obscurity.

The Opera Boston production made a good argument for the unrevised 90-minute Cardillac, playing the three acts without intermission. Director Nic Mumi updated the story to a modern jewelry boutique, some time in the "near future." Erhard Rom's set was dominated by three tilted white flats, surfaces that allowed the actors to cast gigantic shadows at climactic moments. A huge, reversed banner advertising René Cardillac as a "fashion name" like Fendi or Gucci adorned the proscenium. Hi-Def televisions advertised his wares, and a series of sculptures and flying tables raised and lowered, occasionally revealing the corpses of the homicidal jeweler's latest victims.

Sanford Sylvan showed exceptional versatility and range in the title part, taking his baritone down to the depths of Cardillac's depravity and floating pianissimo high notes when needed. His portrayal made the jeweler's decision to kill his customers seem almost reasonable, pulling the audience in as co-conspirators as he preyed upon the elite. The Canadian baritone controlled the stage every time he was on it, from his interactions with his daughter, to the final confession and death scene.

As Cardillac's Daughter, (in the tradition of many early 20th century German operas, most of the characters are nameless) soprano Sol Kim Bentley sang with a powerful, spirited instrument, never unpleasing to the ear. She was well paired with heroic tenor Steven Sanders as the Officer, a young buck who confronts Cardillac, wanting to woo his daughter, only to be seduced by the lure of gold. Mr. Sanders handled the high tessitura, and had an heroic stage presence. Although his fine instrument vanished for a few bars in the last act, the tenor recovered for a strong finish.

Part of the difficulty of staging Cardillac is in its music, which combines the chromatic complexity of Richard Strauss with the intricate polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach. By fusing these two clashing styles, Hindemith made that contrast the driving force of his 90-minute score. Cardillac demands heroic effort, not just from the brass (that's the norm in operas of this era) but also from the woodwinds, whose constant commentary on the action forms the backbone of the opera. Newly appointed Opera Boston music director Gil Rose never let the momentum slip, maintaining the air of mystery and intrigue throughout.

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